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Leadership is neither a matter of rank nor a solo affair, study finds

May 15, 2014

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, +1-718-398-7642 or +1-917-903-9287,


It may be hard to believe, given the size of the popular literature on how to become a leader, but in recent years scholars have increasingly challenged the traditional view of leadership as an individual trait in favor of conceiving it as a shared property of group members. 

"Power in groups is traditionally conceptualized in reference to a rank ordering of individuals," begins a paper in the current Academy of Management Journal, adding that "the prevailing wisdom is that stable power hierarchies promote more effective groups by providing order that helps facilitate collective decision-making." The study then proceeds to take issue with this conventional view through an elaborate behavioral experiment that is supplemented by interviews with members of a variety of work groups, ranging from an editorial team in book publishing to a sales task force at a national tile and stone company to a top management team at a multinational insurance and financial-services corporation.

What emerges is that, rather than flowing from a single leader, power in contemporary teams tends to shift from one team member to another as "situational demands and uncertainties shift." This team power structure is called a "heterarchy" in contrast to a "hierarchy."  The term is borrowed from neurobiological research on the organization of the brain.

The new study suggests not only that power-shifting in teams is consistent with orderly process, (something often doubted in the past), but that it increases group creativity - provided, that is, power shifts are perceived by team members as legitimate. In the words of the study, "If the shift in power expression is not also accompanied by a shift in legitimacy for the new power holder, the positive effect on team creativity disappears."

"As far as we know, this is the first research to find that power-shifting not only is nicely democratic but pays off in enhanced creativity," comments Federico Aime, an associate professor of management at Oklahoma State University, who carried out the study with Stephen Humphrey of Pennsylvania State University, D. Scott Derue of the University of Michigan, and Jeffrey B. Paul of the University of Tulsa..

A surprising feature of the experiment which engendered this finding is that the enhancement in creativity occurred through the power shifts themselves and the willingness of team members to accept them, rather than through any obvious talents of team members. Indeed, how power shifted among team members in the course of the experiment was largely decided on a random basis.

And while the cross-functional team structures that are the study's primary focus are most typical of middle or lower management, the study's authors assert that "there is no reason to presume that [power-shifting] is limited to only those team types," and that it may be equally applicable to top-management teams. Indeed, one of the work groups interviewed in the research was the top management team of a multinational corporation, one member of which cited the sudden increase in assertiveness of the company's chief financial officer with the onset of the recent recession. "It was suddenly evident that cash was king," he recalled, whereupon the CFO "was suddenly dramatically more emphatic than he had ever been," surprising everyone with "his very emphatic e-mails and engagement in meetings.",

The experiment that is at the heart of the study involved 131 business-school students who were divided into 45 teams, each consisting of four or five individuals -- two or three subjects and, unbeknownst to them, two trained research confederates whose primary job was to track interactions among group members. Teams were assigned to perform three tasks in connection with a rollout of a new cell phone to college students - 1) produce a marketing plan, 2) design a mock Web site that would appeal to the target population, and 3) create a presentation to introduce the Web site and marketing plan to the top executives of the supposed cell-phone company. The team that came up with the most creative rollout, as judged by a panel of marketing experts, would receive a $500 reward.

At the start of the experiment, participants were asked to complete a questionnaire, which, they were told, would be used to create a "marketing expertise index" that would provide a basis for task leadership. Unknown to the subjects, however, the index ratings, which were posted on a board, had nothing to do with actual talents or expertise of team members but were purely arbitrary. One of the confederates was rated highest for skills needed for the first task; a subject was randomly chosen to gather information for the second task; and another subject was rated highest (again arbitrarily) in the requisite skills for the third task.

For all tasks, confederates were instructed to go along with the team and not to propose anything particularly creative. Mainly they were to monitor how power expressions (for example, changing a time deadline or telling other members what to do) shifted from one to another member of the group as it moved from one task to the next. How legitimate team members judged these shifts to be was revealed by having each rate (on a scale of 1 to 7) whether one teammate or another "had the right to influence others in this part of the project." 

As the professors hypothesized, leadership did shift among team members from one task to another. The amount of shifting, combined with the extent to which shifts were viewed as legitimate, was significantly correlated with group creativity.


Why should this have been, given the bogus nature of the expertise ratings? That the exact chemistry involved remains elusive is suggested by the title of the study: "The Riddle of Heterarchy."

Asked what lessons could be drawn from the study on how to get the most out of groups, Prof. Aime cites several:

  • Teams are likely to operate better when there are a number of members with leadership potential (fears of rivalry notwithstanding) than when power is a solo affair.
  • It is not only important that team members have diverse skills and resources but that everyone knows what they are, so that they can be fully leveraged.
  • Internal power expressions among team members should shift as appropriate.
  • Team membership should be fluid, with members entering and exiting as necessary to meet shifting situations

The study, "The Riddle of Heterarchy: Power Transitions in Cross-Functional Teams," is in the April/May issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 115 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are The Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, and Academy of Management Annals. A sixth publication, Academy of Management Discoveries, is currently accepting submissions and will begin publishing in January 2015.

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